Even as Sunnybrook’s NICU staff are helping premature babies win the fight to survive, they take care to nurture their early relationships with the parents.
Laura Dundas was worried her son – born dangerously premature at just 25 weeks – was not going to do well. She felt disconnected from Adam; he seemed almost untouchable where he rested in his incubator.
All that changed on his third day when a nurse in Sunnybrook’s Newton Glassman Charitable Foundation Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) offered to help Laura “kangaroo” her son. She held him skin-to-skin against her chest and her fears melted away.
“It was a really sensational experience,” she recalls. “It felt so calm and so natural; he curled up into me when he was placed on my chest, and it was a really lovely, fantastic moment.”
It’s actually much more than a wonderful moment; kangaroo care – that warm, loving connection a parent and baby make when they’re skin-to-skin – has very real, clinical benefits for both. It’s especially important for premature infants in the NICU, already at risk for serious developmental issues. Research suggests kangaroo care helps stabilize the baby’s heart rate and oxygen absorption and decrease the risk of infection. The connection reduces baby’s stress and aids brain development at a critical time.
It’s good for the mother, too, decreasing her stress and boosting her ability to produce breast milk.
“Mom holding her baby just hits those hormones responsible for making milk,” says Luisa King, an NICU Breastfeeding Resource Nurse. “So many moms report that they struggle with artificial pumping until they connect with their baby. Then it’s not a big deal anymore – that simple act of skin-to-skin contact spurs that whole process on.” It boosts parents’ confidence, too, because baby is no longer seen as a fragile china doll.
“And NICU dads are at a real risk for depression,” adds Kate Robson, Sunnybrook’s NICU parent coordinator. “Holding their babies is one of the things that can really help them.”
Kangaroo care fits perfectly into Sunnybrook’s family-centred approach to caring for its tiniest patients, who sometimes stay in the NICU for months. The NICU team – including Kate and Luisa – recently held Closer to the Heart, a weeks-long celebration of parental touch. Launched on Valentine’s Day, the campaign kicked off with a party for staff and families and featured education sessions and events to raise awareness of the value of skin-to-skin contact. The campaign was beyond successful, Kate says, with some 600 hours of skin-to-skin contact logged in just two weeks.
“In an environment based on patient-centred care, anything that puts the baby and family at the centre is a good thing,” explains Kate. “And so we wanted parents to be comfortable asking about kangaroo care, and requesting it. We wanted nurses to feel more comfortable offering it, and for everyone to really understand why it’s so important.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it takes a state-of-the-art NICU like Sunnybrook’s to facilitate this kind of back-to-basics care. Although the unit is equipped with the latest high-tech equipment and systems, the team’s focus is on minimizing interventions whenever possible and promoting parental contact.
Here, technology exists to keep care natural. Sunnybrook’s NICU, the only one in Canada that consists entirely of single-patient rooms, allows parents the privacy needed for longer kangaroo care sessions with their babies. In-room sound-proofing and muted lighting throughout the NICU offers the right environment for brain development, and reduces the mental fatigue brought on by louder, more chaotic NICUs.
Parents are welcome around the clock, and private entrances with key card access means they never have to ask to enter. Incubators are positioned so parents always have free access to their baby on one side even if a nurse is in the midst of care on the other.
With breast milk for each patient a top priority, each mom has free access to pumps at home and in-hospital as long as their baby is in the NICU. Mother’s milk is then prepared on-site by a team nurse King lovingly calls the “Dairy Queen.”